Sebastián Abdon Ibarra
LV Life Editor
After winning their pandemic-delayed season opener by a score of 12-1, La Verne would drop the next two games to lose the season series against Chapman on Saturday and Sunday.
It had been 415 days since a baseball game had been played at Ben Hines Field, and Saturday’s opening day doubleheader against Chapman provided the Leopards with their first meaningful game since the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to shut down March 12, 2020.
Because the pandemic is still ongoing, only four teams have opted in to the 2021 SCIAC baseball season – La Verne, Chapman, Redlands and Cal Lutheran. The Leopards will face each of the other teams in successive weekends, then the four will face off for a round robin postseason championship tournament May 21-23.
By the way the Leopards came out of the gates in game one, it was clear that they were champing at the bit for the opportunity to get back on the diamond.
They faced a tough challenge for their first game back, squaring off against the reigning NCAA Division III national champion Chapman Panthers. The Leopards were unfazed by the Panthers’ reputation and took game one, 12-1 in seven innings, by way of the mercy rule.
Sean Holt, junior pitcher, got the opening day start for La Verne in game one. He set the tone for the La Verne pitching staff, going three innings while only giving up one earned run.
Holt said he was able to keep his arm built up to where he would be able to perform for his start by being creative in finding places to throw during the shutdown.
“Finding places like Las Flores Park to throw long toss was so important,” he said.
Holt said he was excited to get back on the field for the first time in over a year.
“It feels great. We were working really hard to get back out here and we are glad to be able to,” Holt said.
Cameron Slessor, freshman third baseman, led the way offensively for the Leopards, reaching base in all four of his plate appearances, including a two RBI double in the first inning that gave La Verne a 4-0 lead. However, it really was a team effort as six other Leopards drove in at least one run, including three who had two RBI base hits.
“Everyone was prepared, we were working really hard as a team. It was all about putting the ball in play and having the right approach,” Slessor said.
He said it felt great to not only be able to play baseball again, but to also have such a successful start to the season against a tough team.
“Today was a test game and we have to carry it on for the rest of the season,” Slessor said.
On the other side, the Chapman bats were stifled by La Verne’s pitching, only mustering four hits over the seven innings. Their only run came across in the top of the third.
Senior left fielder Mike Gorman, who led off the inning for Chapman, reached on an infield single that kicked off the first base bag. John Bike, the Leopards’ sophomore first baseman, made a nice play to stay with the ball off the carom but was unable to make an accurate throw.
Two batters later Chapman junior shortstop Drew Littwin ripped a double down the third base line to score Gorman from first. Holt struck out the next batter to end the inning.
La Verne came out and played a clean game, besides one error, and seemed to be poised and well prepared.
Head coach Scott Winterburn said that all credit should go to his players for the difficult task of keeping themselves prepared during the long break caused by the pandemic.
“They all trained on their own and held themselves accountable, all credit goes to them,” Winterburn said.
Holt was the winning pitcher for the Leopards, with Chapman sophomore starter Wyatt Thompson being charged with the loss.
Game two was much closer, with Chapman winning, 9-6.
La Verne came back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game in the fifth, took the lead in the sixth, but gave up the lead the next half inning and never got it back.
The Panthers came out hot right out of the gate after their humiliating loss in game one. Senior first baseman Mack Cheli hit an opposite field two run home run that already doubled their offensive production in game one.
Meanwhile, the Leopards struggled hitting with runners in scoring position in the first two innings, leaving five men on base. They were unable to convert on two scoring opportunities, including a bases loaded situation with only one out in the second.
They finally broke through on a two RBI single by Patrick Perez, sophomore first baseman, after the first two batters reached base after being hit by pitches. La Verne batters being hit would continue to be a theme in the game and would be a big turning point in the later innings.
Perez was the offensive star for the Leopards in game two. He accounted for half of their runs driven in, and gave La Verne their only lead of the game in the bottom of the sixth with his single to make the score 5-4 La Verne.
“We’ve been getting a lot of looks in the cages, so I felt really prepared for today,” said Perez.
La Verne pitchers struggled in game two. The Panthers pounced on sophomore right-hander Gerald Terry for five runs in the seventh inning to make the score 9-5, including a no doubt three-run home run by senior third baseman Henry Zeister. It would be a deficit the Leopards could not recover from.
“Our pitchers were pitching well all day,” Winterburn said. “In the second game, especially in the seventh, our pitches got too much of the plate and Chapman finally caught up to us.”
One bright spot for La Verne pitching was in the sixth inning. Chapman was threatening with runners on second and third and one out. After La Verne had just tied the game the previous inning, Winterburn went to the bullpen. Logan Frye, senior right-hander, came in and struck out the next two batters to keep the game tied at four.
La Verne’s best chance to get back in the game would be in the eighth. With two runners on and down by three runs freshman second baseman Chase Siffert was hit by a pitch, but was called out on strikes after the umpire ruled he leaned into the pitch. Up to that point La Verne batters had drawn five HBPs. The Chapman coaching staff was chirping and complaining to the home plate umpire all game.
The play looked routine as Siffert was hit on the elbow as he turned his back away from the ball, but the umpire saw it differently. Winterburn came out to discuss the call with the umpire.
“If the umpire rules that a batter intentionally leans into a pitch, it automatically becomes a strike. Since Chase had two strikes already, it was ruled strike three. I asked if that was the call and he said yes, and I was satisfied,” Winterburn said.
Down by three in the ninth, the Leopards would not threaten to score. Right fielder Brandon Shiota would reach base on a hit by pitch, that was not ruled to be intentional, but he would be stranded.
Chapman senior starter Cody Turner went five innings and junior Ben Ziv finished out the last four innings, getting his second win of the season. Terry picked up the loss for La Verne.
On Sunday La Verne traveled to Chapman and dropped the finale, 9-3. The Leopards came back to tie the game 3-3 in the fifth, but Chapman regained the lead with four runs in the sixth and two more in the eighth to put the game out of reach.
La Verne played a much sloppier game than their first two contests, with three errors that did not aid their comeback effort.
Adam Santa Cruz, senior catcher, and Slessor led the way offensively for the Leopards, combining for five of La Verne’s six hits. Frye was La Verne’s best pitcher of the game, going two scoreless innings with one strikeout.
Senior starter Riley Glenn was lights out for Chapman, earning his third win of the year. He went seven strong innings, allowing one earned run on five hits and striking out four. La Verne junior right-hander Tyler Lawson was charged with the loss.
Sunday’s loss puts La Verne at 1-2 to start the shortened season. They will look to bounce back on Friday against No. 24 Cal Lutheran. First pitch is set for 3 p.m. at Ben Hines Field.
Sebastián Abdon Ibarra can be reached at email@example.com.